Andrew Flintoff: The moment cricket has waited for, that Ashes moment, that Freddie moment

It took time for the penny to drop but England's talisman now knows what it takes to succeed. He talks to Stephen Brenkley

As it is, on Thursday at Lord's of all places, the man long since rebranded as Freddie Flintoff will appear in a Test match against Australia for the first time. He is 27 now, and he is ready for this moment.

"The build-up started when we went to South Africa in the winter," he said last week, sitting in front of the old pavilion at Old Trafford. "You boys began talking about it, and what has been written and said is anything and everything to do with the Ashes, and all sorts of things that don't really matter.

"I'd be lying if I said I hadn't had one eye on it, with the interest from the man in the street, the bog-standard question, 'Are we gonna do 'em, then?' Because I have never played in one, this [series] is going to be extra special, and irrespective of what I have done in the game so far, come September I will be judged on how I've done this summer, and so will the team and everybody in it.

"I'm slightly nervous but it's excitement more than nerves, I want to play in it, it's all you think about when you are younger. You want to play in an Ashes and a World Cup final. I'm getting a chance to do one, and hopefully the other one will be in 2007."

So did Freddie sum up what all that begins on Thursday is about. The anticipation is so great, the expectations so high that careers could very well be defined by what happens in the next eight weeks, not least that of England's great all-rounder. It is not lost on Flintoff, and actually it is very much to the fore of his mind, that while it is true that this might have been his fourth Ashes series (1998-99, 2001 and 2002-03 were the possible others) there might have been none at all.

"Last time Australia were in England I was terrible," he said. "I was lucky to be playing for Lancashire and was going through a bad patch to say the least. Then in Australia there was the whole débâcle over my groin and I only played one one-day international and then came back. This time, I have played some of my best cricket over the last year or so, so it isn't really a bad time to be playing."

Flintoff's assertion is well supported. Two years ago, when he had just turned the corner, he was interviewed by this newspaper just as he was about to face South Africa. His Test batting average then was 19.48 and his bowling average was 47.15. Those figures have now changed, raised in the first case to 32.45 and reduced in the second to 33.33, both perfectly respectable and both heading relentlessly in the right directions.

"It took time for the penny to drop," he said, recognising that like an alcoholic he first had to concede that he had a problem before he could improve. "When I had two years out in the cold, I thought it was a chance of a fresh start, I wasn't bothered about what had gone before.

"I just knew better what an international cricketer had to do, training hard, practising better, not so much more but better. I was watching people who were playing and thought that should be me. I had got by on talent for a long time. Well, not got by, I had to take it up to a different level, I had to start using it. I tell you, none of this would be happening now if I had continued the way I was."

Everything converged at the right time, as though Jupiter was in happy alignment with Venus in the astrology columns. His agent, mentor and former team-mate Neil Fairbrother gave him a dressing-down, and then he met his future wife, Rachael. The pair now have a baby daughter, Holly.

"Off the pitch, my life is perfect. The family travel around with me. We have got a baby who's great. It's a stark contrast from life pre-Rachael. It was all over the shop, wasn't it? She's very organised and she tries to organise me, we have come to a happy medium where I have improved and I have dragged her down a little bit to be a bit more laid-back, so we've compromised.

"But I refuse to tidy my bag up, because it just opens and everything falls out. When I'm getting ready to bat I have to look at the far side of the dressing room for a glove and am scrabbling about for a box. I can't change that, that's me. It relaxes me. But everything else is much better, and I think a little bit of Rachael's drive has rubbed off on me. The fire was always burning within." Mrs Flintoff has put a few coals on it and given it a good stoking.

"Within a day or two of Holly being born it was like she had always been there. I go home and she smiles at me and it doesn't matter if I've scored a hundred or none. It's the same with the missus, and that's why it's so good to have them around all the time. They won't be in Pakistan this winter, and that will be hard."

Like most true all-rounders, Flintoff has still not worked out a way of performing both skills well at once. "It has happened on occasions but never for a long period. Last year my bowling was all right in spells, in the winter my batting suffered a little bit. It's hard to do and it's a bit of everything, physical and mental. It's a big ask to get everything going together but I would settle for doing it in the next seven or eight weeks. I have refined my batting, I am not just a one-dimensional player but in South Africa I think I got a bit too wrapped up with trying to play the perfect innings rather than just playing the way I play."

There remains not an inch of side to Flintoff. Cannier maybe, but still essentially the same callow, gentle giant who, feeling good on his Test debut, blasted Jacques Kallis to cover. He smiles more readily than he scowls, and he tends to see the best in others. The joyous way in which he plays has made him a true star, and he has openly welcomed Kevin Pietersen.

"He's a fine player, he's a confident man and he's good to have in the dressing room. His confidence is infectious. Things have been said and written about him in the past but he's a nice lad and he's very good at what he does. He'll do anything for anyone, he's always watching in the nets and encouraging. He's a good addition to the side."

If Pietersen wants some advice from Flintoff it may be about how to cope with the demands outside cricket. The biggest lesson that Flintoff has learned, courtesy of Fairbrother, is that if you take care of the cricket everything else falls into place. "I'm not looking for things or craving attention, but if you do well sponsorship comes in, people want to get involved with you. KP coming along allows me to get on with my business. Mind? Do I 'eck, it means I can keep my head down and play."

There is one aspect of Pietersen's presence that Flintoff may rue. It has meant, temporarily at least, the reduction to the county ranks of Robert Key. Together with Stephen Harmison, Key is Flintoff's big pal in the England side. They are friends, not just team-mates. The three musketeers. But that is not all.

Flintoff has developed a neat line in repartee since he established himself in the team. He will always have a cheery but pertinent word such as his famous "Mind the windows, Tino" to Tino Best as the West Indian aimed to play a big shot, and Best was immediately stumped aiming another one.

"I come out with a few one-liners, but Keysey has fed me a few. He's very sharp, a very good player too, so I'm on my own for a bit now." But his other chum is still there. Indeed, together, Flintoff and Harmison could hold the key to the whole shooting match ahead. Flintoff knows Harmison better than anybody. When Flintoff is not there, it is obvious that Harmison misses him, and the compliment is probably returned.

"He's ready," said Flintoff of his friend. "He's another one who just lets everything unfold in front of him, but he keeps going on about this series and he is excited. He can't wait to get out and bowl. That first one-day game at Bristol, I had never seen him like that, just wanting to get out there. Harmy will be all right."

Flintoff said this with an air of certainty. "It would be nice to go to The Oval for the last match with all to play for. We dug holes for ourselves in South Africa, and against this lot they are hard to get out of. The first morning at Lord's is massive. That's been the problem in recent times, them getting off to a flier and it's hard to play catch-up."

So, his biggest challenge. "Well, yes, after trying to bring up a child," he said. That perspective should help in the next couple of months.

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